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Love Yourself First? What a Mistake

Many think you have to love yourself before you can love others. That's wrong.

The Beatles sang, “All you need is love,” an admirable sentiment, even if a bit naïve. For you also need food, shelter, and some luck. While you need more than love alone, love—and its companion, caring—comes close to the two things that make life sweet and worthwhile.

You can’t capture everything in a song lyric. John Lennon expanded on the thought when he said, “We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others.”

Lennon’s thought is widely available on the internet and on posters. It captures the spirit of the last half-century, so much so that the sentiment is nearly a truism. The notion is that love is supreme, but it is only possible when you first love yourself.

However, the idea is wrong as it is contrary to human nature.

There is a blueprint for human nature, Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis argues. Just as a building’s blueprint limits what the final structure will look like or how it will function, it doesn’t determine either of these factors. You can’t build a skyscraper with the blueprint of a cottage but how the skyscraper will ultimately function is determined downstream, not in the architect’s office.

One element of the human blueprint, as Christakis illustrates in his book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society is love for partners and offspring. Primatologist Frans de Waal, in Mama’s Last Hug, agrees that “love and attachment are rarely listed as basic human emotions, but they strike me as essential for all social animals.”

“Love is a particularly distinctive human experience (built on a trait seen in only a few other mammals),” Christakis writes. “Love paves the way, evolutionarily speaking, for us to feel a special connection not only to our kin, but also, ultimately, to unrelated individuals.”

As social beings, humans are born into a group that exists because the love for offspring and for partners is part of the blueprint that has made survival of the human species possible. In other words, as was widely understood until the beginning of the modern era, the group is prior to the individual. An individual is created within the context of a community. The love that we feel, the love that we experience, the love that we give takes place in the interaction between and amongst people.

Love is an outward expression that becomes the inward sentiment that makes life worth living.

Love is supreme when rightly understood. Self-love comes about not when we first love ourselves but as we love others in a mutually enhancing relationship. Others aren’t afterthoughts but intimately tied to our very beings. Love is the feeling we have when we care deeply for others. The paradox is that because love and caring are selfless it is the matrix in which love for oneself is born.

If anything can make us whole, it is love. It is loving hands that can soothe our hurts. Without love life loses it beauty. Without love we lose our taste for life.

Some things masquerade as love. It is called love but is something quite different in reality. One imposter is power. When another does our bidding (or they ours) and conforms to our desires (or we to theirs), we can mistake this for love. It isn’t real love because it deprives another of his or her uniqueness and flourishes at the expense of another. The measure of true love is the way in which all partners are enhanced by the relationship.

The line between lust and passion is a blurred line. One distinction between the two is the presence of domination. Does passion lead to the imposition of one will over another, the fulfillment of your own desires irrespective of the other’s or is it a mutually enhancing experience where both are better for the having?

Love builds up or it isn’t love. Love leaves everyone better and stronger. Love is an action of the heart. And the love grows as each honors and respects the other.

We grow in proportion to the love we give. In this way, love creates its own reality.

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